A Few of My Favorite Things...
What are your favorite books from childhood and/or your most re-read. What makes a
book one that you return to?
by Clare O'Donohue
I was an odd kid. I know, shocker. Okay, truth be told I was a mostly normal kid. (Completely normal being an unreachable, and I think, undesirable goal.) I did all the other things that kids in the pre-internet dark ages did, like playing outside and using White-Out on homework assignments. But when it came to reading, I separated from the pack. Even my closest friend, Peggy Gibbons, saw my literary choices as a little strange. And as all psychiatrists can tell you, it was my mom's fault.
My mom was an English teacher. She taught Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Dickens... She quoted Yeats at the dinner table, and at breakfast she would (and I'm really not kidding here) re-enact the fall of Rome using salt and pepper shakers. We didn't have Nancy Drew in the house, or Hey God, It's Margaret, or whatever that book is called. We had Henry V, Red Badge of Courage, The Fall of The House of Usher. So, from when I was old enough to read, that's what I read.
One of those books was The Great Gatsby, which I first read when I was ten. I'm guessing I didn't understand most of it - affairs and parties and drinking etc... But I knew it was poetry written as prose. It made me feel sad and hopeful, angry and hurt. It made me want something un-nameable. And it made me wonder if, maybe, I could do that too. If I could made someone feel so much with just words on a page. It was a seed that planted in me, and made me excited not just about stories, but about being a storyteller. I re-read it as a freshman in high school as part of an assignment, and remember feeling that the teacher, in dissecting it to death, had lost what made it special. I mourn for all the readers who find this book that way.
Later, much later, I'd forgotten my fanciful dreams of being a novelist and I'd become a TV producer who spent a lot of time on the road. I happened to be in an airport when I found myself out of reading material. (Pre-Kindle. I've lived through some dark times.) I came across a paperback re-print of James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss - a hard boiled detective novel, a brilliant, suspenseful page-turner, written in a style that made me want to read each line for the language, the rhythm of it. Reading it in the uncomfortable seating of a non-descript airport lounge, waiting for yet another delayed flight to board, an old dream of being a storyteller emerged. Only this time I wondered, "Could I write a mystery?"
It took a few more years for me to answer that question, but I know that Fitzgerald and Crumley are two of the reasons why I decided to try. I've re-read both over the years and re-read passages from both. Each time I'm inspired not just by the story, but by the words. I'm still working toward being the kind of writer that has that kind of effect on a reader. It's a goal, like being normal, that may be unreachable for me. But in the meantime, I'm grateful for all the other authors, past and present, who do.